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[RMIT’s Dr Andy Wear and Professor Jeffrey Brooks are shown on a split-screen conference call. They speak directly to camera. ]
So, Professor Jeffrey Brooks, Associate Dean, Research and Innovation in the School of Education, thank you so much for joining us this morning for this section on distributed leadership in our leadership series.
Thanks for having me, Andy.
No worries at all. Look, I'll get straight into the questions, I've got a few for you that I'm sure you'll be able to help clarify all that we need to know about distributed leadership, and I appreciate that. Look, the first question I'd like to know is about a bit of the literature. And it does seem that distributed leadership is quite a contested concept with the varying definitions and ideas about what it means. What does it mean to you?
Yeah, I think for me, I think the main contestation that shows up in my field, which is education leadership, is whether or not distributed leadership should be thought of as an intentional strategy, a way of approaching leadership or whether or not it is an analytic framework for understanding leadership practice. And I think that's one of the main arguments that you find in the field, at least where I study it. Because you see there's-- interestingly, so there's been two main traditions in my field. One kind of a UK-based group whose looked at it quite a lot led by Alma Harris and some other people, who tend to approach it as a strategy that one can implement in their schools.
And then, there is another group based in the United States, particularly around the work of Jim Spillane, who is at Northwestern. And Jim's approach is much more to say, "this is a framework for understanding leadership practice". And in a sense, that's probably where I sit. And the reason for that is I think that once you start-- I mean, what distributed leadership is meant to be, is if you think of it as a triangle between the leader, the follower and the situation. And then, in the middle of the triangle is what we call leadership practice. And the idea that it's a-- as it's been characterised, is that distributed leadership asks us to think about leadership as something that stretched over an organisation, rather than sitting particularly in different positions.
And so, if you think about the triangle, the whole idea is that over time, and from situation to situation, certain people will become leaders, other people will become followers, situations will change. And in a very fluid manner, people will come into and go out of leadership based on, primarily, their expertise. But then, also, as the situation may demand for other things. I think that once it starts becoming an intentional leadership practice, I have observed anyway, that when people start saying, "we're practising distributed leadership". What they are generally talking about is delegation or just making redistributing tasks, so that what used to be my job is now your job or something like that. And it's still sort of mapped onto a quite strict accountability regime, rather than being something that's really fluid and moves around the organisation.
Yeah, so the model you are talking about also needs quite a bit of crossover with that notion of sort of situational leadership as well. It's almost like it’s hand in hand sort of conceptually …
Yeah, and in a way, there is a little bit of overlap there. Situational leadership is a little different. It's a much older leadership theory. But it's, you know, in a way what distributed leadership does is really instead of-- if you like, situational leadership theory usually is looking at it in terms of what we might call tasks. So, it's more like for the situation, we're going to build a structure, we're going to see it through, we're going to get it done. And then, we move onto the next situation. Whereas distributed leadership is meant to more blow up the hierarchies and get people, you know, moving around the organisation in a much more free manner.
Yeah, right. Where have you seen this actually work? And, I suppose, the following question from that is, why? And conversely, where do you see it not working and why?
I think it's-- the only place see can work is a place where the positional administrators, the core former leaders of the organisation are willing and happy to share their power, to give up some of their decision-making authority. To make things transparent. And I think that's, you know, in principle, something that most leaders would aspire to. But I think in practice, it's something that for a variety of reasons, becomes very difficult. I think that I've seen it were quite well in certain schools. So, secondary and primary schools have been able to do it. I do find that it has a completely different flavour.
For example, in the United States as opposed to in Australia, from what I've observed. Australia is much more wedded to the notion of hierarchy and authority and the flow of decision-making and information. And so, I find that distributed leadership that I've observed most people who claim to be doing distributed leadership are really just delegating or what they are doing is saying, "well, I use to keep all of this information to myself and not share with anyone, and now I'm letting people have a little peak". And it's not really distributed leadership as we might talk about it in, at least in a theoretical sense. That's not to say it's a total wash. I mean, it's not a bad thing. It's still flattening the hierarchies, it's still getting more people involved, it's still making the organisations more democratic. But I just wouldn't say that what I've seen much of it is really what I would call distributed leadership.
Yeah, that's really interesting. I hadn't thought about that sort of cultural overlay-- [clears throat] excuse me. Because obviously you are seeing it in response to the, you know, coronavirus pandemic. You know, different perceptions of authority. So, Australia seems far more willing to sort of toe the line of authority than in, say, the US, for example. And that obviously has the same--
Thank goodness [laughing].
But in a distributed leadership kind of thing, it has a different relation-- a different dynamic, the way it plays out.
Yeah, a little bit, but those two examples are actually quite good, I would say. So, in Australia, by comparison, what do you have? Is you have a, you know, let's take the most recent spike of cases. So, around June we were just coming out of locked down and started to have that new spike in Victoria. And immediately, the government kicked in with stage four restrictions. And what's happened? So, over the weekend, our numbers went down to eight new cases in Victoria, you know.
I mean, that's excellent-- I mean, I would just say that that science led evidence-based leadership, which is what we should be having, you know. Yes, it made things difficult for some people, but it was necessary to get things under control. Now, the United States, I guess you have distributed chaos going on. So, you have no one taking-- you know, very few people taking responsibility, except in local municipalities. And you have people ignoring evidence and science and making decisions. So, no organisation, no country is going to thrive under those kind of circumstances.
Yeah, yeah that's right. You know, we talked a bit about accountability. How do you manage that tension between getting people the opportunity to take on responsibilities, but ensuring accountability is held by the appropriate person?
Yeah, I think any leadership, you know, drawing on a number old theory, another-- I think any kind of leadership, what you need to do, is you need to be thinking about two dynamics. There should be a certain level of support and a certain level of direction. So, one of the things that you have been distributed leadership, is you need both. I think, the big mistake that people make when trying to practice distributed leadership, or even just sharing tasks more broadly. You know, no need to get hung up on the term distributed leadership, is that they are quite directive, but then they are not supportive. So, they might get, okay, here is the task for you to do, I need it done. But the important step of let's make sure you have everything in place you need to actually get it done and let's talk about the strategy and all of that, sometimes doesn't happen.
So, that's really important to remember. So, for example, if I'm in a position of authority and I have a lot of resources, maybe I have a budget, maybe I have some personnel who are supporting me, something like that. And then, I hand off one of my tasks to you, who have none of that, not of those supports in place, then I'm really not distributing leadership, I'm just giving you my work to do. Distributing leadership would be more, okay, I'm bringing you into this conversation. Here are all the resources that are at our disposal. You, in this situation, are going to take the lead. I am here as part of your support. And that's more in line with distributed leadership. Whereas, you know, the other is just, you know, flogging off your tasks to somebody else.
Yeah, and I suppose it sort of falls down that line of distinction between leadership and management. So, one is more sort of task-based, one is like distributed management, which is really without the accountability for the tasks.
That's right, and I think that that's what distributed leadership can quickly become if we don't have a good, deep understanding of it. Is that it can be just creating more complicated management structures.
So, that's how you see it. And some organisations that are meant to be practising more distributed model, they have instantly this proliferation of middle level management type positions. And again, there are often people-- you know, in the unenviable role of having to sort of implement things without having the formal authority or the resources to make something happen. So, it's tricky, it's tricky. It's really-- to practice distributed leadership or to even think about the organisation. It really is a philosophical shift in thinking about organisations.
Hm, yeah. Pretty much so. I mean-- and I guess to that point, is there something inherent in what a university is that lend itself to distributed leadership? I mean, you keep talking about the philosophical fundamentals, if you like, as a place where-- especially in the academic world, we are in the nature of collaboration and working together, you know, and sort of distributing the sort of knowledge. It feels like a good match for it. Is that necessarily the case?
Well, I would say there is-- there are certain dynamics that would facilitate a distributed approach and certain ones that would inhibit a distributed approach at universities. I think that you have the number one quality that you would hope for in distributed leadership, because you have, by its nature, an organisation full of brilliant people. You know, there is no doubt that universities have a lot of knowledge, they have a lot of skill, they have a lot of people with innovative ideas. There is a lot to build on. It has exactly the foundations you would like.
But as I alluded to earlier, I think one of the things that holds universities back, is the hierarchical structure of them. They have very rigid reporting lines. Information doesn't flow very freely or very well throughout the organisation. There are competing demands sometimes. So, you have some units, you know, fighting over scarce resources, which can be problematic. And then, also, the other thing that makes it a little bit fraught, is that not everyone works at a university for the same reason. Some people are there, you know, for-- let's just take research, for example. To some people, their main motive is winning grants, doing big funded projects, these kinds of things. For other people, its publication. For yet others, it's working with HDR students and there is every configuration. And that's what makes a university good, that we have, you know, people with all those different perspectives about things. But it can make distributed leadership very difficult, because not everybody is there with the same priorities. And so, when, you know, I implement things and you are sitting down the hallway and I'm needing to rely on our relationship to pull off some aspect of leadership, but you hear about the way I'm approaching and say, "whoa, that is the wrong direction, you know, I'm not going to buy into this". Then as I can just be a challenge.
Yeah. Yeah, I can see that. There's so much to sort of ponder in this space and it sounds like it is a conversation that will change. It sounds like a process rather to reach that level of, I suppose, readiness for this sort of way of thinking.
Yeah, exactly. And I think that's what makes it so interesting as an analytic framework, or just as a way of thinking about leadership. Because you can see that, you know, all over the place, there will be, you know, at a university like RMIT, there will be people practising something like distributed leadership without calling it as such. There'll be certain teams that function in a really powerful and interconnected way. And then, there will be some that are more traditional and hierarchical. And I think that, you know, the way it works is either can be effective.
The question is, you know, how much do you want to take advantage of the expertise and the talent in the room? Distributed leadership done well will tap into the collective wisdom of an organisation. Distributed leadership done poorly will only take the reporting lines into-- you know, to come to bear in a problem. So, distributed leadership done well has the potential of bringing much more expertise to bear on issues. If it's done in a respectful and democratic manner.
I'm not surprised that there is so much interest in this particular topic. And look, I really, really appreciate your input. And we may well bug you again sometime to continue down that path. But in the meantime, thank you so much.
Okay, thanks Andy, appreciate it.